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Last Updated: 03/22/2011
Genocide, Responsibility and International Law: an Interview with genocide scholar Dr. Gerald Caplan
Ingmar Zahorsky

In a thought provoking interview, genocide scholar Dr. Caplan examines the effectiveness of international law in genocide prevention, outlining both the failures and potential strengths of the UN system. Dr. Caplan also discusses the responsibility of nations and individuals and comments on the role social media could play to design a potent intervention. He ends with a reflection on how the study of genocide has changed him as a person.

The last century was filled with a succession of genocides. After the Holocaust the world said "Never again". Why have we failed to prevent and stop contemporary genocides?

Why don't you ask me an easy question Ingmar? Because human beings are still human beings and we seem to be filled with rage and anger and resentments and we have a capacity when things are going well to look for trouble, it sometimes seems. The disputes that cause so many of these conflicts, whether they are big or small, whether they end up being genocidal or mass atrocities are often so trivial that it makes you weep for the human condition. So the first reason we have them is because we are people and wherever there is people there is trouble – that is the first thing to be said.

How effective is international law in preventing and punishing genocide as outlined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide?

Well, it has been pretty weak so far, but the convention is very week, it is a deeply flawed document as anybody who has ever studied it knows. It is the product of many, many compromises among fifty nations who could barely agree on the time of day, let alone what should be in the genocide convention and so it’s very easy to ignore it, to pay no attention to it, and that has been done. On the other hand, I want to stress that if you are in a good mood, if you are in a positive frame of mind, if you want to cheer yourself up, that there have been major institutional structural changes over the last ten or fifteen years, really since the Rwanda genocide, that allow the world – I don't like using the word “international community” because it doesn't exist – to be more successful in stopping conflicts and punishing conflicts. It is not clear yet how these institutions – the international criminal court is the most prominent, the office in the secretary generals department in the United Nations on genocide prevention – it is not clear yet how useful they will be but they are there, and they didn't exist before.

In the case of the Rwandan genocide, several heads of states and their members in the UN Security Council were informed but yet refused to act on the knowledge they had. Why did the UN and its member fail Rwanda?

Everything comes down to a matter of political will and political self-interest for all the nations in the world. If we look at the five veto-wielding permanent members of the United Nations, and their behavior in Rwanda and in Darfur and in Bosnia and, we are not sure yet, maybe now in Tripoli, we see that they have interests that act against intervention. Interests are not old fashioned Marxist economic interests necessarily; they are not always oil pipelines. They could be crass political interests. For example, Bill Clinton in 1994 had a congressional election coming up in November, the genocide is April, May, June, and they were very worried that their democratic candidates will be hurt in an election. That is a terrible calculus right? “Are we gonna lose a few seats in Mississippi, while a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand Rwandans are being killed?” Well the answer is yes, that is the calculus they used.

Everybody has interests. In Sudan, for example, the Chinese had a great interest in keeping good relations with the government in Khartoum, from which they got oil and to which they contributed huge amounts of money. The Russians had a great interest: they were selling piles of weapons to the government of Khartoum. The Americans were working closely with the government of Khartoum on Anti-Terrorism in the Horn of Africa, so, for them, what happened in Darfur was too bad but not nearly as important. Time after time, self-interest prevails and the political will to intervene doesn't exist. Political will is more important than any convention or any proclamation or any covenant or any declaration – that's what has to exist, and often it has to be civil society that forces a government to have that political will.

Some may argue that it is not our responsibility to intervene into the affairs of other sovereign states. What responsibility do nations have and what responsibility do we have as individuals to intervene when a genocide occurs?

I have two answers. One is a kind of a moralistic namby-pamby, soft-mushy-liberal answer that we are all people and that we all have a responsibility to love each other and we are all our brother’s keeper and all that stuff, and I believe just that. I just don't think it drives people very far most of the time. But I believe more importantly, and I have written a lot about it, that the western world, of which I consider myself a member, has had the responsibility for causing, for enabling many of the conflicts that exist in the world. We have supported many of the tyrants, many of the dictators. Our economic policies have deeply hurt and destabilized communities in many, many ways over the last sixty or seventy years. Western countries – including mine, Canada, including yours, Germany, including certainly the United States, which in my view is the biggest perpetrator, but Canada is an ally, therefore, that implicates me – we have caused an amazing amount of human suffering, either directly or indirectly, and so I think we should intervene, because we have a responsibility to correct what we have created.

The court system in Rwanda as well as the international court have successfully prosecuted a number of the perpetrators of the Rwanda genocide. Do you think there should be an accountability of political leaders that could have prevented the genocide? Should they be prosecuted as well?

I do, but I understand that that it is not going to happen. I understand first of all that it is genuinely complicated. Who exactly do you prosecute in the American government? Bill Clinton himself or the ambassador of the United Nations or his senior advisors. It is a real question. Who do you prosecute in the French government? This is an even more complicated question – I am not sure you understand this. The French government was in one of its periods of dual governance so that the president didn't control the government, there was the president on one hand, and the cabinet on the other, which was controlled by a different party that had won the election, but both were involved in what I consider France’s complicity in the genocide. So who in the world do you get? You can't get the president because he is dead so that's no good, and his advisors in the Africa office? Well they are just advisors you know, the president doesn't have to listen to him. Or the prime minister who knew what was going on? These are legitimately difficult questions and they are also politically impossible questions.

Having said all that, one of the problems that the International Court must very quickly repair is that every single one of the small number of people that they are after so far is African, and that is infuriating African leaders – and I don't mean corrupt African leaders, I mean the best African leaders, the civil society leaders. What is the message that they are sending? We have this new institution to deal with the worst atrocities in the world and the only people that are guilty are African? Please, it’s a serious issue. But so far it is true, nobody but Africans have been indicted by the court and they actually have to change that. I don't know who they are going to get. They are not going to get George Bush on Iraq, but I think he is a perfect case for doing it. But they actually must stop picking on Africans and show that impunity has to be ended for everybody, not just for some African soldiers who get caught because it is easy to make them suckers for the big guys.

What role do you see for the UN to play in that in the future? What role would you like the UN to play?

That is an interesting question. I am a big, idealistic believer that the only source of legitimate international law in the entire world is the United Nations and its institutions. So, for example, I don't believe that NATO should start intervening anywhere in Afghanistan. Who is NATO? NATO has no legitimacy in my view, it’s a bunch of countries coming together in military alliance because they want to come together. Only the United Nations can create international law, by international law only the Security Council, for example, can choose to have a peace keeping unit. Only the United Nations can say “this is an illegitimate conflict in which the world has to intervene”, and I am a big believer in that.

Now, the problem is that there are two United Nations, or three United Nations. One is the United Nations of agencies, the one that we all know about that does an awful lot of good work for refugees, for children, for World Health, and all those things, and it’s hard to know what we would do if the United Nations didn't exist; the second is the large international civil service that constitutes the United Nations, and they have some limited kind of power; but the third is the security council, and it’s kind of unfair to call them the United Nations because they are really just fifteen independent countries, but they come together and they are the bearers of this international law. So, yes, I see that as the source of whatever hope we have. But it means that in all our individual countries we have to make our governments carry messages to the security council of what we expect of them. So I keep coming back to the same theme of the role of civil society, in short the role of the students and faculty at UPEACE, to be activists and to put pressure on their own governments, who will then put pressure on the security council to intervene where appropriate.

What role can social media play in genocide prevention in the future?

I want to say on the record that I am waiting for my students give me a series of papers on this issue. And once they do, I will have a better idea of what I am thinking about all of this. Social media is changing the world in ways we don't understand and I think truly it would be foolish to generalize or to anticipate until we have some more time. Obviously they played some role in Egypt, although nobody knows how big a role. Could you say it wouldn't have happened without social media? I don't know. And Tunisia? We just don't know all of this. I also believe that things are changing so quickly – look at how Facebook didn't exist a few years ago, and Google didn't exist a few years ago – so, in two or three years we don't even know if the same social media will exist or whether some entirely new development will happen – that is what technology is doing. So, first of all, I don't know. Secondly, it is hard to anticipate, and thirdly, whatever technology emerges can be used just as much by the bad guys as by the good guys.

You can argue that in Rwanda, in 1994, if the victims or the United Nations people who were so helpless had been able to document what they were seeing and send it around the world quickly enough, it would have forced some action. You could equally argue that if the genocide plotters had had the same technology they could have wiped out the Tutsi. So how this will all play out is certainly unknown to me.

Has the prolonged study of genocide changed you as a person?

I don't know. I don't know what to do with all of it. I don't know where it goes. It deepens my sorrow of what humans are capable of. It makes me always remember that if they could do it, I could do it. If hundreds of thousands of Hutu farmers could be brainwashed and mobilized into committing those acts, how could I possibly say I wouldn't have done it if I had been born into those circumstances? So I think that is the important and frightening thing to realize – that each of us has the capacity for terrible things, which is another way of saying we have the capacity not to do terrible things, and so the job is to create that environment, an atmosphere, a circumstance in which people are happy to be decent rather than fulfilled by being indecent.

Gerald Caplan is a political activist, writer, and analyst. He has written extensively on Africa. His writings on Africa include the comprehensive report called Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide and his latest book, The Betrayal of Africa, an assessment of the reasons for Africa's many troubles, published in 2008. Caplan’s commentaries appear regularly in various Canadian media.

Ingmar Zahorksy is a Master’s degree candidate in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies. Ingmar is a German born international journalist and photographer with an interest in neocolonialism, social justice, and new media activism.